Originally part of the duo Emanon back in 1995, with producer Exile, Aloe Blacc, real name Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III, has seen the game change many times over. Once a b-boy, then an emcee, and now a soul singer, he too has changed many times over. Topping charts all around the world with his Bill Wither-inspired gritty street tale, ‘I Need A Dollar’, it appears that soul really is the new pop music. Talking about everything from hip-hop sampling to who would win in a sing off between Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, Gigwise meets Aloe Blacc.
Most people want to talk about the soul thing when it comes to you because of the new record, when in reality you started off as an emcee. You’re on Stones Throw, which is predominately hip-hop – Madlib, J-Dilla, etc, so what is it about hip-hop that does it for you?
It started with b-boying back when I was a little kid, dancing to music. It then eventually became about the lyrics when I eventually gained a command of the language. I started b-boying when I was really young. I was like four-years old. I then became interested in the way people used words in hip-hop. So I started writing lyrics at the age of nine. It took a while but by the age of 15 I met a DJ who could record my voice, and he made beats. That was Exile. So then we started recording. For me putting words together is magical because you’re creating something that someone else can feel. You know? It’s a conversation you get to have with multiple people at once, and you can kinda predict how they’re going to respond. That’s just like any other form of art. A film maker writes the script and directs the film because he wants to evoke a response. You kinda know what you’re gonna get and that’s what I do with music. I use my words to evoke a certain response. If it makes me feel that way or I can intuitively sense how people will respond that’s how I craft my music. That’s what hip-hop is to me.
The union of hip-hop and soul stretches back years. Forget sampling, we’re talking acts like Prince and Mary J. Blige. How important is it that genres like these collaborate, and what’s the outcome?
I think that hip-hop is the soul music of its generation because when they’re are no instruments for people to play out on the street corner they had to tell their stories in a way that was effective for their community, and if beating on the lunch table or a wall is what they had then so be it. For some people it was all they had to make a backdrop to their words. I think that’s really what the marriage is. It’s a folk music. Soul is a folk music and hip-hop is a folk music because it’s the words and music of a culture of people. It has within it the social surroundings, the economic issues that affect the people that are writing the songs or the people that the songs are written about. I think that that’s the main bond. It’s a folk music, or it has been used in that way. Nowadays it’s just more entertainment.
Do you think it’s hard to identify hip-hop soul these days because there is so much claiming to be of that sub-genre when really it isn’t?
It’s definitely harder to identify hip-hop soul now. Actually I think it’s harder to find it. There is a lot of it. There are many underground independent artists that just don’t have the exposure that the major label artists have, and many of the major label artists aren’t making soul music. They’re making widgets. In economics you use the term widgets to describe product ‘X’, a product that’s put on the shelf for sale, and that’s what it is nowadays. It’s not really soul. It’s not even really music. It’s just a product for sale, because the intuitive sense of business people has become so strong that they know what teenagers will buy, whether it has substance or not, and unfortunately I think that’s what is happening to hip-hop music, and indeed RnB.
So if you had to label your brand of music what would it be?
It’s brand new old soul. It’s a throwback to classic soul of the late sixties/early seventies, the highly politicized and socially content-driven music.
Your music is very rich in soul and has a very vintage sound to it. What was it that inspired you to do this kind of music now, whereas ten years ago it wasn’t very popular commercially?
Really it comes down to a couple of factors. One, I had recorded many different genres on my first solo album – ‘Shine Through’, and I realised that soul music was the best place for my voice. When I listen to myself sing soul, for example ‘Busking’ on my debut album, or singing a cover of Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, or even covering John Legend’s ‘Ordinary People’ in Spanish, I feel is the best place for my voice. I feel like I can believe ‘that guy’, as opposed to when I do other genres. Another factor is, when I was getting ready to record again the label connected me with Truth & Soul, and they’re better known for making soul music regularly.
There are obvious comparisons to Bill Withers in the way in which you deliver your music. What do you think to the comparison? They’re some pretty big shoes to fill?
It’s a comparison, and I don’t have to fill his shoes. I never will and I never expect to. I just wear my own, and hopefully can stand the test of time like he has. For me, I feel like if people are actually going to compare me to Bill Withers then I must be doing something approximately right in the realms of soul music and folk music. Otherwise I might get compared to lesser forms of artists and musicians, and I’d rather be compared to the greats.
Discussing the greats, on the soul side of things, who did you listen to when growing up?
James Brown. He was a soul singer before he became the funk King. Barry White, these are the records my parents had. Bill Withers for sure, even some of Michael Jackson’s ballads when he was a kid was some very soulful stuff. Stevie Wonder. This was when I was younger. When I got older and could take control of what I wanted to listen to I found Sam Cooke, I found Donny Hathaway, I found some D.J. Rogers - he’s a kind of an obscure gospel/soul artist from the seventies. I would say that those were the ones I listened on a regular basis.
Imagine there was a sing off between Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Who would you take?
I guess it depends on what the evaluative points are.
Just go with your gut...
My gut goes with Stevie but Marvin is a better singer. Stevie has a very unique voice, great lyrics, and great musicianship. I like Stevie’s body of work, and I enjoy it.
What about Bill Withers and Teddy Pendergrass?
I would go with Bill because I know more of his music. Maybe I know more of his music because I’m more attracted to his style – simple, and more of a down home folksy regular kind of guy. Teddy Pendergrass was more, “Turn off the lights and light a candle,” (Laughing) and that’s all good, but I’m more in to the folk songs.
You seem to be on everyone’s radar on a more commercial level as of late because of ‘I Need A Dollar’. It’s a throwback to a time when soul was soul. It’s a record rich in vocals and with a strong message; can you break it down for us?
Because the record’s foundation is the genesis of soul music, which if you go backwards, soul music according to the aficionados of soul is music taken from gospel. It’s circularising gospel music. Basically Ray Charles would take rhythms and melodies from church songs and write different lyrics. Prior to gospel you had spirituals and field songs. So basically songs slaves would sing or people would sing as they worked. That style and methodology of making songs made its way in to the black church, which was then popularized in soul music as well because there was an industry in it. It became lucrative. I think ‘I Need A Dollar’ came out the way it did because of the way I was thinking when I wrote it. I was listening to a lot of field recordings of chain gangs. These are guys that are telling their own tales of woe, they’re improvising and singing caller response, and that’s what ‘I Need A Dollar’ is. Of course on the record the verses are static, but really everyone should be singing their own verse on that song. The chorus can be the same but every person can have their own verse.
Does the track sample anything?
No. It’s an original record.
It sounds really familiar...
It was recorded in the way we sample songs for hip-hop were recorded. It was recorded to two inch tape. We were using outboard gear that is antiquated from the seventies. So it sounds like a record somebody may have sampled and that’s why you would think that it’s a sample.
The video has a vintage feel to it also, while at the same time being filmed in a modern day setting. Explain the video.
The direction was the brainchild of a group called What Matters Most. They’re from the U.S. The director was from L.A., his name was Kahlil Joseph, and his concept was, “Let’s go to Harlem,” which was where he grew up and where his dad lives, and, “We’ll show the grit of the hood but also leave a bit of mystery,” and during filming the video J.D. Salinger died, who of course was famous for ‘The Catcher In The Rye’, and the main character in that book was this aloof kinda kid trying to find his way. So the character in my music video was a sort of homage to the character in ‘The Catcher In The Rye’, in that he was walking through the city trying to make his way, and in search of trying to make a dollar. In that respect trying to make a dollar can sometimes lead you down some dark alleys.
Why do you think the record has received such critical acclaim and been picked up the way that it has at this stage in your career?
I think I know why. I think it’s because it’s simple, repetitive, and people can feel it. That’s the easy answer. If a three year old can sing it, which many have, then that means that it’s simple and repetitive.
The record is playlisted everywhere. How are you dealing with the recognition?
I’m coping. It’s fine. I quite enjoy this time to see the other side of the business. I spent many years as the obscure and unknown. And now... good, let me be known. I’ve got a lot of people I can bring along with me that make good music.
Since the success of the record have you been tapped up to collaborate with anyone you might not have been able to prior to it being released?
There have been a lot of requests for features but I feel like right now is a time for me to establish who I am in a larger sense with a broader audience before lending my voice to other projects.
There seems to be a current trend, which started with the release of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back In Black’ a few years back, where real soul music seems to be much more accepted commercially. Just look at recent releases from Cee-Lo Green and Raphael Saadiq as an example, and now there’s your album. Why do you think this is?
I think that there is a scarcity of relevant music that speaks to an adult population, and I think it’s largely the adult population that are gravitating towards this soul music, and I think people just want to be recognised as mature adults that can take a bit of real music, and not synthesizers and vocoders. When you leave the party and go home to chill what do you listen to? You can’t keep listening to the same party music. There’s gotta be something else to relax to.
While the recognition comes from ‘I Need A Dollar’, your album, ‘Good Things’ has been out for a while. What’s it all about?
I think the album is a social commentary on issues that are relevant to today. It’s about the financial crisis, people losing jobs. It’s about corruption and politics. It’s about the social issues that we have in our personal relationships. 50 percent of marriages end in divorce within two years in the United States. I know that that’s largely sometimes down to financial issues, and I think more so to do with a cultural disconnection that we have with understanding ourselves before we lend ourselves to others. I would blame capitalism for everything but it could be down to other things also, but I would say capitalism for sure because capitalism is the driving force in our lives now. We are pushed and prodded and pushed to conduct our lives a certain way based on how industry wants us to behave fiscally. The song titles speak for themselves - ‘Life’s So Hard’, ‘Politician’, ‘Misfortune’, and ‘Take Me Back’.
With more people now knowing who you are, what’s next?
Next is writing for other people. I’m going to continue to expand my art and storytelling, hopefully as an actor, maybe as a writer in other mediums, perhaps books or writing films, just different ways of telling stories.